Sunday, January 19, 2020

Episode 132: Britain Adjusts its War Plans

General William Howe had hoped to end his 1776 campaign with the subjugation of New Jersey in December.  With that, he expected the remainder of the Continental Army would dissolve and he could focus on granting pardons to everyone who swore loyalty to the King.  Of course, General Washington had other ideas, fighting the battles of Trenton and Princeton and keeping up the Forage War across New Jersey for most of the winter.  This kept the Continental Army and the counter-offensive alive for at least another year.

Howe left the skirmishing in New Jersey to his subordinates.  Howe himself, spent the winter in New York enjoying one party after another and his mistress, Betsy Loring.  His professional focus remained on the inevitable campaign that would begin again in the spring of 1777.

More Shock and Awe

Even before Washington counter-attacked at Trenton, indeed even before Howe had completed pushing the army out of White Plains New York, Howe had begun writing Secretary of State Lord George Germain and others in London calling for more reinforcements.  Remember, Howe had begun the New York campaign a combined Army and Navy force of about 42,000 men, not even counting the 8000 or so stationed in and around Quebec.

General William Howe
(from Wikimedia)
With about 10,000 sailors and marines, only about 32,000 of the British and German forces in New York were army.  Over the course of the campaign, he had lost nearly nine thousand soldiers as prisoners or through desertions or death. Most deaths coming from disease.  Howe would need more reinforcements for the 1777 campaign.

Remember, when preparing for the 1776 campaign, officials had decided to deploy an overwhelming force in order to crush this rebellion.  In 1775 the entire British army worldwide consisted of only about 50,000 soldiers.  Sending 40,000 to New York and Quebec had been quite a burden.  They did so in the hope that they could end this war quickly, rather than having an expensive drawn out effort lasting many years.

Howe’s letters to Lord Germain in the fall of 1776 informed him that there was no way the campaign would end that year and that they needed to send many more reinforcements in order to crush patriot moral and force a surrender.  This had to frustrate Germain.  Howe also said he found that he could raise almost no Tory regiments from among the locals, meaning they would need more from recruits Britain or mercenaries from Europe.

By late November, about the time General Lord Cornwallis was chasing the rapidly disintegrating Continental Army across New Jersey, Howe provided more specifics on his planned campaign for 1777.  He would deploy one army of about 10,000 men from Providence, Rhode Island, marching through New England toward Boston.  He would launch another army of 10,000 men up the Hudson river toward Albany, presumably linking up with forces from Quebec and cutting off New England from the colonies to the south.  Another army of 8000 would occupy New Jersey and create a threat against Philadelphia, thus preventing Washington from moving troops to deploy against the other two armies.  Finally, he would maintain a force of around 5000 in and around New York City to defend his base of operations there.  Once Howe has subdued New York and New England early in the season, he would then capture Philadelphia and begin moving south to subdue the southern colonies.

To accomplish all of this he would need another 15,000 soldiers.  Again, his hope seemed to be that overwhelming force would get the patriots to surrender without even having to fight a major bloody battle.

Howe wrote about all of these plans even before Washington had launched his attacks against Trenton and Princeton, capturing about 1400 prisoners and putting almost all of New Jersey back in contention.

Following the revitalization of the patriots after those victories, Howe conceded that he would have to fight a decisive battle to defeat the rebels, something he had not really tried to do in 1776.

No Reinforcements

Sir George Germain, Lord
Sackville (from Wikimedia)
Howe had hoped for more reinforcements to shock and awe the patriots into surrender.  It seems, though, that the only people shocked were officials back in London who saw no good justification for spending more money to raise and deploy another 15,000 reinforcements.  Germain told Howe that he was not getting anywhere near that number of soldiers.  First Germain thought 15,000 was excessive because 7800 soldiers should give Howe the 35,000 total he said he required.  A few years later, at a Parliamentary inquiry over the events of 1777, Howe testified that Germain’s numbers only made sense if Howe counted his soldiers who were disabled on sick leave and those who had been captured as available for duty.

Even beyond that dispute, Germain further determined that the ministry simply was not willing to pay for an army of 35,000 to put in Howe’s command.  He ended up sending about 2300 reinforcements for Howe’s 1777 campaign.  Howe needed to find a way to win this war with the already massive force under his command, a force that far outnumbered anything the Continentals had put in the field.

Focus on New York

Like every commander at time, Howe had subordinates who did not think he was up to the job, that they could do a much better job, and were not afraid to say that to anyone back in London who would listen.

General John Burgoyne had left Canada in December 1776 after the northern army had taken Crown Point following the battle of Valcour Island, and then retreated back to Canada without attacking Fort Ticonderoga.  Commanding General Guy Carlton’s caution in not taking Ticonderoga that winter had upset many officers, including Burgoyne.  So Burgoyne’s personal mission in London focused more on bad mouthing Carleton rather than Howe, but he of course made clear that he had better ideas than all the commanders in North America.

In February 1777, Burgoyne drafted a memorandum: Thoughts for Conducting the War from the Side of Canada where he described in detail how he would lead an army of 8000 regulars, 2000 Canadian militia, and 1000 Indians (or “savages” as he called them) down from Canada, capturing Fort Ticonderoga.  A diversionary force would leave from Montreal and move down Lake Ontario toward the Mohawk River.  The main force would move from Quebec, down Lake George to capture Crown Point and Ticonderoga.  Ultimately, the force would continue on to Albany, where the northern army would either link up with Howe’s forces moving up from New York City, or at least establish communications with New York City via the Hudson River.

General John Burgoyne
(from Wikimedia)
This was not an original idea.  It was very similar to what Carleton had proposed and failed to do the year before.  It was also what military planners had suggested from the very beginning, as a strategy to cut off troublesome New England from the rest of the continent.

Burgoyne, with his detailed plan, successfully lobbied to lead the campaign himself.  Lord Germain, Lord North, and King George all agreed that Burgoyne was best for the job.  The King even weighed in with very specific Remarks on the conduct of the War from Canada  about Burgoyne’s plan.  The main concern was that London did not want to send more expensive reinforcements to Canada, and also that they wanted a sufficient force in Canada to protect it from another invasion.  As a result, they shaved Burgoyne’s request to send a force of 11,000 down to about 7200 regulars and Hessians, with around 3800 remaining in Canada.

With Burgoyne’s acceptance of the reduced numbers, he left London near the end of March so that he could be back in Quebec by early May.  He needed to get moving if he would have time to organize his troops, obtain the necessary supplies, and begin his campaign by some time in June.

This left leaders with two uncomfortable problems.  First, giving Burgoyne command of the northern army invading New York would be a slight against General Carlton, who was senior to Burgoyne and the current commander of the northern army in Canada.  Some historians indicate this was an issue of personal animosity between Germain and Carleton.  If there was any ill will between the two men, there certainly was also good objective reasoning not to put Carleton in charge.  Carleton’s inability to secure Ticonderoga, despite marching right up to its walls the year before did not exactly enhance his reputation as an aggressive fighter to officials in London.

General Sir Guy Carleton
(from Wikimedia)
The administration was clearly frustrated with the slow pace of events in America, and laid the blame on Howe and Carleton.  Giving an independent command to an aggressive fighting general like Burgoyne might be just the thing to bring the rebellion to a faster conclusion.

No one, however, wanted to disgrace or attack Carleton.  Instead, they used the argument that whoever led the expedition would have to link up with Howe’s army and come under Howe’s command.  They wanted Carleton to retain his independent command of Canada.  After all, he also was the Governor of Canada.  So, Carlton had to remain in Canada while Burgoyne led the bulk of the northern army into New York.

Regardless, Carlton would take this action as a slight against his leadership abilities.  Sure enough, when Carlton received word of Burgoyne’s assignment, he immediately sent word that he wished to be recalled to London.  But there would be no time for him to fight or challenge the orders once received.  He had to go along with it.  The Ministry kept Carlton in Canada.  He would remain there, discontented, until the summer of 1778.

The second ego bruised was that of General Henry Clinton, who had been seeking an independent command of his own and expressed continued frustration at serving under Howe.  Before Burgoyne arrived in London, Lord Germain and others had already been considering a similar plan to Burgoyne’s, with the intention of giving command of the force to General Clinton.  As second in seniority to Howe, and given the fact that he had been frustrated with Howe’s refusal to take his strategic advice the year before, Clinton would be the obvious leader.  Howe had actually assumed Clinton would get the northern command and had requested that London send Burgoyne back to America to become Howe’s second in command.

General Sir Henry Clinton
(from Wikimedia)
But with the decision to give the command to Burgoyne, the administration had to find a way to appease Clinton.  To make things even more uncomfortable, Clinton was already on his way to London.  As I mentioned back in Episode 119, Clinton had secured Rhode Island for Howe, after being left out of the entire New Jersey campaign.  Frustrated, he boarded a ship for London in January and arrived in March, just after the administration had handed the New York expedition to Burgoyne.  Even before hearing of this latest slight to his honor, Clinton had planned to resign his commission.  He felt everyone held him responsible for the failure to take Charleston, South Carolina back in the spring of 1776, and that he was getting dumped into unimportant posts where he could do little to restore his reputation.

The ministry did not want Clinton to resign, but they also did not seem to want to give him any important command either.  Instead, they opted to stroke his ego.  The King honored him with a Knight of the Bath for his services, promoted him to Lieutenant General, and let him address Parliament.  After giving him all that, Germain told him he had to go back to New York and babysit New York City while Burgoyne invaded New York and Howe took his army to on its spring campaign.

Howe Plans to Take Philadelphia

So with the northern army’s invasion of New York approved and ready to go, planners could consider Howe’s other suggestions, an invasion of New England and the capture of Philadelphia.  Howe’s grand program that he had proposed in the fall looked even more sketchy after Washington attacked Trenton and Princeton and took back most of New Jersey.  London still was not willing to send the reinforcements that Howe wanted.  As a result, he dropped his plans for New England.  The British outpost in Rhode Island would remain with a limited force to provide a check on New England, but the planned offensive came to nothing.

Burgoyne's proposal for 1777 (solid) and
Howe's attack path for Philadelphia (dots)
(from US History)
Instead, Howe focused on capturing Philadelphia. In his correspondence with Germain and others over the winter, Howe did not say explicitly how he planned to assault Philadelphia.  Everyone assumed he would march his army across New Jersey, cross the Delaware River at some point and assault the city.  His plan to put his entire army on ships, sail down to Maryland and assault Philadelphia from the south seems to have come later.

And this is really where things break down.  Germain and others in London assumed that Howe would provide support for Burgoyne’s invasion in New York.  An attack across New Jersey would occupy the attention of the Continental Army, thus relieving pressure on Burgoyne.  Germain also seemed to think that at some point, Howe would march northward to link up with Burgoyne’s army, either in Albany or somewhere in upstate New York.

Germain thought Howe would take Philadelphia early in the season.  Everyone in London believed that Pennsylvania harbored a great many loyalists who would rise up, as they did in New Jersey, once the King’s troops entered the colony.  Howe would take Philadelphia easily, set up a reserve force of mostly locals to hold the city, then move the bulk of his combat troops north to assist Burgoyne by late summer or early fall.

 Confusion Reigns

Overall, the war planning over the winter of 1776-77 left none of the generals completely happy.  As I mentioned,  General Carlton was mortified that Burgoyne got command of the army invading New York.  He wanted to return to London.

General Clinton also more senior to Burgoyne was similarly upset and tried to resign.  His resignation refused, he returned to New York and commanded the tiny contingent holding New York City while others engaged with the enemy.  Although he commanded a force of around 7000, almost all of them were German mercenaries or local loyalist militia.  He had almost no regulars under his command.

I mentioned in an earlier episode that General Lord Percy had returned home in early 1777 to resign as well.  The King accepted his resignation and he left the army permanently. 

General Lord Cornwallis
(from Nat. Portrait Gallery)
General Lord Cornwallis was ticked off that he was getting the blame for Washington’s successes in NJ that winter and that he could not return to London to advocate for himself.

General Howe was frustrated by London’s refusal to give him the reinforcements he needed to carry out his plans for three armies.  He could not strike at New England, nor did he have enough men to send a separate army up the Hudson River to coordinate with Burgoyne.  He had to settle for capturing Philadelphia only.

Even General Burgoyne, who got the plumb command over two more senior generals and got his plan of attack approved, only received less than two-thirds of the number of soldiers he had sought for the mission.

Having all the leading generals upset and angry at each other was bad enough.  What was worse was that no one seemed to have a sure understanding of the overall strategy for the year ahead.   Burgoyne thought that Howe or Clinton would assist with his offensive by pushing up from New York City toward his advance, or at least attacking New England to draw away some of the enemy.  Clinton did not receive any such orders.  When later urged to push up the Hudson to relieve Burgoyne, he refused to do so because it would leave New York City vulnerable to attack.

Similarly, Howe made his only goal for the year capturing Philadelphia.  There was some discussion that he might assist Burgoyne in the fall after pacifying Philadelphia.  But He never received explicit orders to do so.  Many historians put the blame on Lord Germain for this.  They point to a story just before Easter 1777, when Germain was eager to get out of London and return to his country home.  His secretary reported that he never sent explicit orders to Howe to assist Burgoyne.  Not wanting to wait in London, Germain had his staff work on the orders and send them to his home for his signature later.  But all Howe ever got was a copy of Burgoyne’s orders that indicated that Howe might be of some assistance at some point.  Howe never even started his move on Philadelphia until the end of July, and did not even enter Philadelphia until the end of September.

Howe, therefore never made any effort to send a force up the Hudson to relieve Burgoyne in the late summer when it might have helped.  But the truth is he knew what Burgoyne was doing and even if Germain gave him some discretion in how to act, it seems he should have been prepared to support Burgoyne.  Later, during a Parliamentary inquiry into the matter, Howe justified himself as follows:

Had I adopted the plan to go up the Hudson River, it would have been alleged that I had wasted the campaign with a considerable army under my command, merely to ensure the progress of the northern army, which could have taken care of itself, provided I had made a diversion in its favour by drawing off to the southward the main army under General Washington. Would not my enemies have gone further, and insinuated that, alarmed at the rapid success which the honourable General [Burgoyne] had a right to expect when Ticonderoga fell, I had enviously grasped a share of the merit which would otherwise have been all his own? and let me add, would not Ministers have told you, as they truly might, that I had acted without any orders or instructions from them?

In other words, Howe would have been criticized for sitting around New York all summer waiting to assist the northern army rather than doing something proactive like capturing Philadelphia.  Howe blamed Burgoyne for getting the reinforcements that Howe wanted for his own plans.  Howe reasoned that if Burgoyne got the soldiers, he should be capable of defeating the Americans without more help from another army.

None of the other generals would ever admit to such a thing, but all were probably waiting for Burgoyne to fail.  Burgoyne had criticized everyone else for being too cautious and for lobbying for his own command over the backs of more senior generals.  He was an upstart who was junior to all these other generals.  Further, he had no family in Parliament to support him politically if he did fail.  If Burgoyne’s aggressive offensive failed, it would show why those cautious tactics he criticized were the right strategy. As it was, everyone started the fighting season of 1777 with a different idea of how things would work.  We will see in a future episode the results of that confusion.

Next week: British test American resolve on the Hudson by raiding the town of Peekskill.

- - -

Next Episode 133 Peekskill Raid

Previous Episode 131 Congress - Baltimore Edition

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Further Reading:


Hargreaves, Reginald "Burgoyne and America's Destiny" American Heritage, June 1956,
Vol. 7, Issue 4.

Sir Guy Carleton:

Fleming, Thomas “The Enigma Of General Howe” American Heritage, Feb. 1964:

Burgoyne, John, Thoughts for Conducting the War from the Side of Canada (transcript):

King George, Remarks on the conduct of the War from Canada (Transcript):

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The Detail and Conduct of the American War, under Generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe, (original reports and letters) The Royal Exchange, 1780.

Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts Report on the manuscripts of Mrs. Stopford-Sackville, of Drayton House, Northamptonshire Vol. 2, Hereford: Hereford Press, 1910
(includes Germain’s correspondence related to America).

Burgoyne, John A State of the Expedition from Canada: as laid before the House of Commons, London: J. Almon, 1780.

Donne, W. Bodham (ed) The Correspondence of King George the Third with Lord North from 1768 to 1783, Vol 1, London: John Murray, 1867.

Howe, William The Narrative of Lieut. Gen. Sir William. Howe, H. Baldwin, 1781.

Publication date 1781

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

O'Shaughnessy, Andrew The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

Saxon, Gerald Brown The American Secretary: The Colonial Policy of Lord George Germain, 1775-1778, Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1963.

Watson, J. Steven The Reign of George III 1760-1815, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960.

Whiteley, Peter Lord North: The Prime Minister Who Lost America, London: Hambledon Press, 1996.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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